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"American" Music Shines

November 10, 2000

By Steven Miller

Billed as a concert of "American Color," the Ives Quartet's presentation at Old First Church on Friday night included a West Coast premiere and two highly Romantic works from the late 19th century that together showed how difficult it is to define an "American" music.

The highlight of the evening was the premiere. Eric Sawyer's Quartet No. 2, written in 1999, was immediately appealing and left me looking forward to further performances of this 37-year-old composer's work. The second movement in particular was memorable, combining beautiful melodic material presented in the kind of deeply personal and heartfelt counterpoint reminiscent of a late Beethoven quartet. The Ives Quartet, led by first violinist Roy Malan's distinctively sweet tone, played with great tenderness and obvious affection.

The outer movements, lighter in character, were also attractive on first hearing. Sawyer clearly knows how to write for string quartet, filling his music with lots of interesting interplay, unpredictable rhythmic flashes, and virtuosic challenges. It all added up to a premiere that was thought provoking, moving, and altogether entertaining.

The concert opened with a performance of Arthur Foote's First String Quartet, written in 1883. While there is no doubting the American citizenship of the composer, this piece sounded like a combination of various central European masterpieces that must have been familiar to a composer writing near the end of the 19th century. The first movement starts with the same gunshot of a G minor chord as Smetana's quartet "From my Life," first performed only three years previously.

Also included in the first movement were numerous passages that borrowed from Mendelssohn, including an almost exact replica of a sixteenth-note passage from the famous E Minor Quartet. The last movement recalled the last movement of Mendelssohn's B Flat String Quintet of 1845. The violist, Scott Woolweaver, in his thoughtful program notes states that in this piece Foote was trying to "establish an American Voice." Whatever that voice might have been, I couldn't hear it in this piece.

Despite the work's lack of originality and occasional predictability, the Ives gave a convincing performance. All four musicians displayed impressive virtuosity and musicality, playing always with a dignified, elegant approach forsaking the high-voltage passion that might have been more chosen for such a highly Romantic piece.

After intermission the quartet gave an oddly uninvolved performance of Dvorak's always-pleasing "American" Quartet — another piece (written in this country) that captures the Bohemian spirit better than any so-called American one. The Ives' elegant manner, used interestingly and effectively in the Foote, deprived the Dvorak of the energy needed to make it come to life. Considering its frequency of performance, I expected more dash and passion, especially in the usually electrifying last movement. Perhaps, in the same way that movies are more satisfying to watch in a crowded theater, a larger audience would have helped to create the kind of excitement that was missing from this otherwise-splendid concert.

(Steven Miller is a freelance violinist and teacher.)

©2000 Steven Miller, all rights reserved